The Sailor and the Siren
NOTE: This story is part of a series. For the recommended reading order, see Gale's Storyline.
“You sing so beautifully, yet the song is so sad.”
Hearing the sound of another living voice took Gale by surprise. She had been seeking solitude when she walked to the very end of the long, low pier. Above her head, the nighttime sky was dark and sultry. Rain fell in thick, lazy drops from heavy, black clouds, landing on the wooden pier in rhythmic, percussive bursts. Beneath her feet, the timber of the wharf was rotten and soft. It bowed and creaked with each step, adding a high, soprano accompaniment to the sound of the rain.
At the end of the wharf, Gale had removed her shoes and rolled-up the cuffs of her canvas trousers. Sitting down atop the rain-soaked pier, she had dangled her legs over the edge, dipping her bare feet into the warm, muddy river.
Then she had closed her eyes, and she had started to sing.
One hundred fathoms away, the Autumn Crane lay docked at harbor. The rest of the vessel’s crew – who had been given a night’s leave while the boat was re-vittled, and had two week’s wages burning through their pockets – could be found among the groghouses and brothels which thronged the dockyard, spending their coin as fast as their constitutions would permit.
Had she been where she belonged, Gale would have been among them, drinking and cavorting and singing with her mates. She would have felt full – full of music, and pleasure, and happiness.
But Gale was not where she belonged. She was on stultifying, sea-forsaken Wreth, worlds away from the wind and the waves that were the only home she had ever known. And, instead of feeling full, she felt empty.
That was why she needed to sing, needed to try one more time to fill herself with song. And it was why she needed to be alone.
It was not that she did not enjoy the company of her current mates. They were companionable enough, after a fashion, strange as their ways still seemed to her. It was that she would not have wished her company upon them. For, as strange as she found them, she knew that they found her stranger still. Her with her marked skin, the likes of which they had never seen. Her with her memories of the sea, the likes of which they had never known. Her with her need for song, the likes of which they had never heard.
She knew it unnerved them, when she sang. When she closed her eyes – she always closed her eyes when she sang – and moved her body in time with the rhythm of a music which only she could hear. When she threw back her head and opened her mouth and bared her soul for any who would dare to listen.
She would open her eyes, only to find everyone staring at her, shooting her glances long and sharp as knives.
So, that night, she had gone out in the rain to the edge of the pier, where she had been sure that no one would follow.
Except that, apparently, someone had.
“Does that song have a name?” the voice asked. A woman’s voice, with a honeyed tone, and an earnest curiosity.
“It’s a sailor’s lament,” Gale said, her eyes still closed. As the final, ululating notes of her song faded away, disappearing into the deep, dark night, she felt the music draining away from her body, felt her soul hollowing-out again. “It’s the story of a woman, who lost her heart, but did not die.”
“I have heard many sailor’s laments in my day,” the voice said. “But none quite like that.”
Gale sighed. “This lament is my own,” she said.
She opened her eyes. Looking down at the rippling, rain-mottled surface of the river, she saw the dim, shifting reflection of the woman who stood next to her. The woman’s skin was tan, and her eyes were clear and bright. She wore a simple sheath dress, cut from a rich fabric of the deepest blue, which looked almost black beneath the pall of night.
She was, Gale thought, strikingly beautiful. But it was a beauty that carried with it an almost ethereal aura of sadness, which the woman wore like an invisible veil. Somehow, it made her both radiant and haunting at the same time.
“Yours was a song without words,” the woman said.
Gale nodded in acknowledgment.
“Words are the language of the mind,” she said. “Words come from up here.” She tapped a finger against her temple. “Music is the language of the soul,” she said. “Music comes from down here.” Gale moved her finger downward, indicating her heart. “It stirs you from within, it grows and it builds, it turns your whole body into an instrument. A song can say things that words can’t.”
“Now that is very true,” the woman said. “Truer than most would realize.”
Gale didn’t know what to make of the woman, or her comment. So she merely nodded again.
For a moment, silence descended over the pier. The only sound was the patter of rain.
Reaching into her pocket, Gale extracted her folding knife, along with a nearly-finished bit of scrimshaw she had been working on for the past fortnight. Fashioned from tusk, it was a comb with ten fine, delicately-tapered teeth, and an intricately-carved handle in the shape of a leaping dolphin cresting a wave. On the world she had come from, sailors practiced scrimshaw as a way to pass the time below decks, and as a means for supplementing their wages. Gale kept up the tradition on Wreth, mainly because the level of attention which the work required left little space in her mind for dwelling on darker thoughts. But she made no effort to sell her creations; when they were finished, she simply stowed them away in her trunk, or dropped them over the side in the dead of night. Coin meant little to her, as there was nothing on Wreth which she wanted to buy.
Besides, she always carved dolphins – a creature which no one on Wreth would recognize.
As Gale whittled away at the tusk with short, precise strokes from her knife, the other woman broke the silence.
“Would you forgive me if I joined you?” she asked, indicating the spot on the pier next to where Gale sat.
Gale shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t see how I would forgive you,” she said, “seeing as you’ve done me no offense.” And she patted the rain-soaked timbers, inviting the woman to sit.
The woman nodded in thanks, and sat down next to Gale. She moved gracefully, with an ease and fluidity which reminded Gale of nothing quite so much as the ebb and flow of a gentle tide. The woman, Gale was surprised to note, was barefoot, too, and, once she was seated, she too stretched her legs over the edge of the pier, so that her slender toes rippled the water’s surface.
For the first time, Gale turned to look directly at her unexpected companion. Seeing her from close-up, Gale realized that, beneath the rich, golden color of the woman’s smooth skin, there was a barely-perceptible hint of blue, so that the combined effect was almost like seeing a sunset reflected across the surface of the sea. And, even though rain continued to pour from the heavens in buckets, the woman’s ebony hair shimmered, but it was not wet. In fact, the rainwater seemed to collect in beads where it landed on the woman’s skin and clothes, before sliding smoothly off her, as though it could gain no purchase against her body.
The woman looked back at Gale, and, in the moment that their eyes met, Gale felt as though something strange passed between them.
“I take it, then, that you are a sailor?” the woman said.
Looking away, Gale shook her head.
“I was a sailor,” she said. “But not anymore. Now I’m nothing. A walking corpse.”
A look of confusion darkened the woman’s face.
“Why do you say that?”
“Because there are no sailors here,” Gale said. Beneath the pier, she kicked at the river’s surface, sending ripples racing away in all directions. “Sailors need ships, and ships need seas, and this cursed world has neither.”
The woman nodded slowly, and delicately cleared her throat.
“I take that to mean, then, that you are not from this world,” she said.
Again, Gale gave her head a short, sharp shake.
“Then why, if I might ask, are you here?”
“I’m not here by choice,” Gale said, bitterness creeping into her voice. “This is my curse.”
Slowly, the look on the woman’s face changed from one of confusion into a sad sort of comprehension.
“You lost your heart, but you did not die,” she said, and there was something knowing in her voice as she said it.
“You’ve put words to my lament,” Gale said, slicing a thin sliver of tusk from her scrimshaw dolphin as she did.
The woman tilted her head a bit to one side. “You know,” she said, “there are many who would consider your curse to be a gift. Perhaps the greatest gift of all. They covet the power you possess.”
“Then they are welcome to it,” Gale said. Shifting her knife deftly in her hand, she drove its tip into the soft wooden pier. “I would gladly give it to them, if I could. I would give anything to have never been cursed with this ‘gift.’” She closed her eyes for a moment, and she could feel tears welling in them. “Sometimes, I wonder if I angered the fates. I feel like this must be my punishment... but I do not know my crime.”
For a moment, the two women sat next to each other in silence. Then, after wiping away her tears on her rain-soaked sleeve, Gale pulled her knife free from the pier, and she went back to carving.
After a minute or so, the woman cleared her throat. “Over the many years of my life,” she eventually said, “I have found that the Eternities have little sense of proportion, and no sense of fairness.”
Gale sighed, but said nothing in reply. Carefully, she made a few final, delicate strokes with her knife, putting the finishing touches on the leaping dolphin’s bottlenose. Then she folded her knife and put it back in her pocket, and her hands fell still.
“You’re like me, aren’t you?” she said. “You’re cursed, too.”
“Yes,” the woman said quietly. “Although I try not to think of it that way.”
“But you came here by choice?”
“Why?” Gale asked, in a tone of non-comprehension.
The woman shrugged. “It has been a long time since I travelled,” she said. “I needed to stretch my legs, to reacquaint myself with the Eternities beyond my own grotto.”
“And you came to Wreth?”
“I heard tales of the rivers,” the woman said. “I wanted to see them for myself.”
“Well, now you’ve seen them,” Gale said, giving the muddy river beneath the pier another kick.
“Yes, I suppose I have,” the woman said. She sighed. “I do not suppose there is much else to see around here, is there?”
Gale shook her head. “No,” she said.
“Actually, I would like to see that, if I could,” the woman said, pointing at the scrimshaw comb Gale held in her hands.
Gale handed the comb to the woman, who held it up close to her face, and ran an appraising finger along the dolphin’s curved back.
“It is exquisite,” the woman said appreciatively, before offering the comb back to Gale.
Gale shook her head. “Keep it,” she said.
Gale nodded. “I have no need of it. Besides, it suits you.”
After a moment’s hesitation, the woman offered a grateful nod. Then she slid the comb into her hair, positioning it so that the dolphin seemed to leap from her dark, wave-like tresses.
“That is a generous gift,” she said. “Thank you.”
Gale shrugged. “I can always make more,” she said. “I have nothing but time.”
“I hate to impose on your generosity even further,” the woman said. “But, if I may, I would like to ask you for one more favor.”
Without knowing why, Gale found herself feeling wary. Then her mind flashed back to the other wanderer she had met on Wreth – the bearded, smug-faced man, who had captured her misery in verse – and she understood the source of her unease.
But such wariness, Gale decided upon reflection, was unwarranted, and undeserved. Just because the woman seated next to her shared the same curse was no reason to assume that she was like the bearded man in any other way.
“What would you ask of me?” Gale said.
The woman smiled at her. It was a knowing smile – wise, but not world-weary.
“I would ask you to sing for me,” the woman said.
As the woman spoke, Gale noticed, for the first time, that there was something musical in the woman’s voice. It was faint, and it was carefully-guarded, but it was there. It sang out from between her words, like the pealing of distant bells.
Gale wondered if her surprise was showing on her face. No one on Wreth had ever asked her to sing.
“What would you like to hear?” Gale asked. “Another lament?”
“No,” the woman said, firmly. “I would like you to sing a song without words, but not a lament. Instead, I would like you to think back to a time when your heart was full, and you were happy.”
Gale’s brow furrowed, and she looked down at the river below.
“I feel like those memories grow dimmer with each passing day,” she said. “I don’t know how much of that music I have left in me. I haven’t heard it in a long, long time.”
“Tonight, you will,” the woman said. “Let it come from down here,” and she indicated towards her heart. “Let it stir you from within. Let it build, and grow, until your whole body becomes like an instrument.” The woman smiled again. “Then you will remember, and then you will sing.”
Gale was not entirely sure she believed what the woman was telling her. But, eventually, she nodded her head, and she closed her eyes. She always closed her eyes, when she sang.
Gale cast about in her memory, clutching at the strands of distant, half-recollected melodies. She tried to harken back to the happiest moments of her life, to remember the feel of the wind whipping through her hair, the smell of the brine in the sea air, the pitching and yawing of the deck beneath her feet, the sound of the waves breaking against the ship’s hull. She tried to remember the music they made, the songs they sang to her. She tried to remember the songs she sang with them.
Then, suddenly, like the prow of a ship emerging from a bank of fog, a single memory came sailing into the fore of her mind. It was the memory of the first time she had gone to sea, of her first voyage aboard a real, ocean-going ship. Gale remembered how she had felt during that one, singular moment, when, for the first time in her life, she had stood aboard the deck of a sailing ship, and gazed out across the ocean waves, and watched as the last, gray-green smudge of land disappeared beneath the distant horizon, until all that she could see in any direction was the deep, blue sea. She remembered how it had felt to know that she was really and truly at sea, and how the immensity of that realization had filled her with the most pure and intense pleasure she had ever known. How it had thrilled her to her core, how it had set every nerve in her body tingling, how it had heightened every one of her senses until she was filled with a feeling of pure ecstasy. She remembered how the wind and the waves had called out to her then, how they had taken her into their arms, had welcomed her home. How they had filled her, body and soul, with the most beautiful music she would ever know.
With her eyes shut tight, Gale remembered the wind, and the waves, and the music they made.
Then she opened her mouth, and she sang.
She sang a song without words. She felt it build and grow. Her voice was so high, and so loud, and so clear, that it rose up through the nighttime sky like a clarion call of love, and passion, and it rang out with pure and sensual pleasure.
Gale sang, and, for the first time in as long as she could remember, her soul felt full. She felt as though every muscle in her body was taut, and was vibrating in time with the rhythm of her song. She felt as though every nerve in her body was alive with music.
Next to her, the woman joined in. She sang along, with a voice that was silken, and seductive, and full of music. Her voice partnered with Gale’s, so that they joined together into a single, harmonious, siren’s song. When Gale went high, the woman went low. When Gale’s notes grew quick and vibrant, the woman’s notes grew smooth and long. When Gale’s song asked, the woman’s song answered, until finally, their voices rose as one, building and building upon one another until they joined together into a single, soulful crescendo, which continued to reverberate in the very air around them even as their voices fell silent, and their mouths drew closed.
In the moments that followed, Gale bent forward, until she was almost doubled over. Her eyes were still shut tight, and her chest heaved in and out, as she sucked warm, moist air into her empty lungs. Her whole body was drained from the exertion of the song. Her throat was raw. Her lungs burned.
But she felt alive. For the first time since she had fallen through worlds, she felt fully and vibrantly alive.
Next to her, she heard the creaking of wood, and she felt the timber beneath her flex as the woman stood up. Then she felt the woman’s breath close to her ear, as her strange companion whispered to her:
“Thank you for sharing your gift with me.”
When Gale opened her eyes, the woman was gone.
Gale looked down at the spot where the woman had been sitting just a moment ago, and she realized that the woman had left something behind.
It was something familiar. Something which could not have come from Wreth. Something which the woman must have brought forth from another world.
It was a seashell.
Gale picked the shell up, and held it in her hands. It was a chambered nautilus, cream-colored, with seafoam green stripes, and curled into a perfect spiral.
With trembling hands, Gale held the shell up to her ear, and she listened.
She heard the sea.
For a terrible, nervous moment, Gale thought it might just be an illusion, or a spell, or a trick of her mind. But it wasn’t. What she heard was clearly and unmistakably the voice of the sea.
And, as she listened, the sea called out to her. It spoke to her.
It spoke to her in an accent that was foreign and exotic. The voice she heard was not the voice of the sea she had known before, and it did not come from her own world. But she knew it all the same. She knew every rise and fall of its tone, every nuance of its timbre. It spoke to her in a language which was intimately familiar, and just hearing its voice again was like feeling the fingertips of a long-lost lover brush against her cheek.
Beckoning to her from some distant, unseen shore, the voice asked: “Will you sing to me?”
Gale closed her eyes, and she whispered: “Yes.”
Then Gale felt a strange, vibrating sensation in her body. It began in the pit of her chest, down around her diaphragm, and it swelled up to fill her from head to toe, until she felt almost as though she were the string of an instrument which had been plucked by some unseen hand.
Then the world went black, and all was silence.
The next thing Gale knew, she could feel warm sun on her forehead, soft sand beneath her toes, and the gentle caress of waves lapping against her ankles. Somewhere in the distance, she heard the screech of a gull.
Her eyes shot open. When she realized what had happened, she sank to her knees, and she began to weep tears of joy.
In one hand, she still clutched the seashell which the woman had left for her back on Wreth.
But Gale was not on Wreth.
She did not know where she was, but she knew she was not on Wreth, because she was kneeling in a warm, blue sea.
It was not the sea of her home, but it was a sea. A real sea. The sun was bright, the sky was blue, and the water was clear. The air was scented with brine, and a freshening breeze from the west tickled at her cheeks and teased the waves which lapped rhythmically against her body.
In her ears, she could hear the voices of the wind and the waves. She could hear them welcoming her. And, on the distant horizon, her eyes caught sight of a moving shape – a shape which looked very much like a billowing sail.
“Thank you,” Gale said. “Thank you.”
Then Gale closed her tear-filled eyes, because she always closed her eyes when she sang.
Penelophine is an original character created by RavenoftheBlack for the Expanded Multiverse.
Magic: Expanded Multiverse is not associated with Wizards of the Coast. This is a transformative work of fanfiction, protected in the United States under the laws of Fair Use.
All works copyright their respective creators.